Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
Contributing Editor: Carol M. Bensick
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Assuming that most users of The Heath Anthology will be instructors of the American Literature survey course, and that most survey courses using Volume 1 will not overlap its terminus, the teacher of these selections will probably have a week on Edwards. By the time you reach Edwards the students will be accustomed to reading nonfiction "as literature." Of the five texts selected, each may generate its own form of resistance.
The Edwards selections can be assessed in terms of their entertainment value and intelligibility. "Resolutions" is highly intelligible. On the other hand, the readability of lists is comparatively low. Your job with "Resolutions" is primarily to demonstrate that it is uncharacteristic. When students read the "Personal Narrative," you can point to the moment in the chronology of his movement from anxious lack of conversion to the relief of conversion from which "Resolutions" comes. Note, in particular, the flat condemnation in the "Personal Narrative" of active seeking and the self-manipulation exhibited in "Resolutions." Encourage students to admit that "Resolutions" is either monotonous and dreary or annoyingly arrogant, then remind them of adolescent diaries and journals they may have kept. In general, ask them to think of the piece as capturing one phase of the life of a frontier country boy not yet settled into family or career. Indeed, you might encourage them to admire Edwards (for being asked to write "A Faithful Narrative," having it published in England, being asked to take "Sinners" on the road, having it published, and of course going on to become an internationally famous and admired philosopher of permanent repute) for how well he came out of the mood of the "Resolutions."
The two "Narratives" probably will be found the most entertaining. Start with "A Faithful Narrative," the simpler and more direct of the two. A brief description of the work itself and an explanation of the occasion for its composition (noting that Benjamin Colman is a minister of a rival branch of post-Puritanism, one skeptical of evangelicalism) is enough to permit the students to follow the story with interest on their own. Inevitably, the "Personal Narrative," a more private piece of writing, is harder for a student reader to follow. There are some options, however. Having taught "A Faithful Narrative," the instructor can portray Edwards as spurred by the events chronicled in that text, including his own part in hearing the validity of the would-be new church members' narratives to try to recall his own exemplary experience, hoping to guide himself thereby in the assessment of the applicants' testimonies and to stimulate empathy with what they are undergoing. Here the teacher might draw a parallel with Edward Taylor's "Preparatory Meditations," in which a pastor similarly performs on himself the same activity he intends to perform publicly on his congregation--namely, evangelical preaching--in order to produce the same effect of activated piety. Such activities might be compared with the self-analysis conducted in modern days by classical Freudian psychotherapists, or with the imaginable activities of scientists who perform physical experiments on themselves (particularly William James's experimentation with nitrous oxide).
With "Sinners," the requirement for the intelligibility that is the prerequisite for enjoyment is conversance with the Bible. Looking up the individual citations is more likely to distract and antagonize the biblically illiterate, and I suggest advising the students to skip or skim the citations and attempt to read the sermon "for the story." Beginning with the title, the teacher can ask the following questions: who is the protagonist with whom the reader identifies? (the sinner); who, from his point of view, is the antagonist? (God); what is the situation? (God is holding you up, but any minute now, God will drop you into hell). With this much established, the teacher could challenge the students to make these abstractions real to themselves. The idea would be to get them to see that Edwards is interpreting the natural fact of the occurrence of sudden deaths as a providential sign, which he then goes on to use as an argument to motivate a certain class of the individuals in the audience to adopt a certain behavior.
The class should understand that in "Sinners," a minister is trying to get new members to join his particular sect's churches. The teacher might invoke a parallel with a salesman; what Edwards is selling is church membership. They should be able to see from "A Faithful Narrative" that the "terror" ceases with the cessation of God's "anger." Once inside the church, the convert will enjoy good times. (Here the teacher might suggest a comparison with Taylor's "Gods Determinations.") By the end of the class, students minimally ought to be able to tell you that this sermon will only be scary to a subgroup of the audience and that the members of that subgroup have it (as far as the sermon lets on) entirely within their own power to exempt themselves from the terror.
The instructor should remind students of how long young Edwards himself went before conversion; how scared he was at the threat of sudden death in his fit of illness; and how delighted he was to get onto God's right side. Students should understand that Edwards's God is not always angry and not angry at everyone, and that such fits of anger have a cause. Under original sin, you can explain, no single human being deserves being spared from hell; Christ has purchased that an unknown parcel of humans nevertheless shall enjoy just this reprieve; all they have to do is join the churches; and a group of individuals are actually hesitating to take advantage of this limited-time-only, never-to-be-repeated offer! What's a God to do? (The teacher ought to refer back to Wigglesworth's "God's Controversy" here.)
"The Spider Letter," like "A Faithful Narrative," will become intelligible as soon as the instructor explains that Edwards's father, Timothy, a Harvard graduate and minister interested in the intellectual world, encouraged his teenaged son to send his observations as an amateur entomologist to Paul Dudley, a friend who was a member of the prestigious British scientific organization, the Royal Society. Timothy hoped that Dudley would get Jonathan's letter published in the Society's Transactions, which would have been comparable to a youth publishing an article today in the Smithsonian, National Geographic, or at least Scientific Monthly. Mention that in an earlier generation, Cotton Mather had opened the pages of the Transactions to American authors, and that in general there was a strong connection in New England (as in England) between Puritanism and both experimental and theoretical natural science. Encourage the students to think about how different Edwards's life might have been if he had had his first publication in the field of science, before becoming a minister or undergoing his final conversion.
Among texts for possible comparison with "The Spider Letter," one might be Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," for its portrayal of a scientist just slightly younger than Edwards who is involved in the Royal Society. In general, "Insects in American Literature" is a surprisingly fruitful topic for Edwards. For example, students can observe a range of treatments from the theological (Taylor's "Spider Catching a Fly") to the moral (Franklin's "Ephemera," Freneau's "Caty-Did") to the natural or natural-supernatural (Emerson's "Humble-Bee," Dickinson's "Bees are Black"). In contrast with all these, Edwards's approach shows a high proportion of the scientific virtues of literalism, factuality, empiricism, and clinical detachment. In turn, this suggests that contrary to the conventional wisdom, Edwards and Benjamin Franklin have much in common.
Finally, one would like the students to surmount, as definitely as possible, certain historical solecisms and biographical stereotypes that older anthologies have long inculcated. Whatever they think, the students should be embarrassed to be caught ever again saying that Edwards is "a Puritan" (have them compute how long after the Mayflower Edwards was born); gloomy (have them tally up the forms of the words "pleasure," "sweet," "joy," "delight" in "A Personal Narrative"); or sadistic. On the latter point, referring back to "Sinners," you can show them that the path of cruelty for Edwards, who has the power to admit you to the fellowship of salvation, would have been to leave you in your unconverted state till you suddenly dropped dead.